Thursday, May 28, 2009


I've had innumerable conversations with citizens of Germany who have tried to explain America to me. I'm sure that with their more objective point of view they must have some insights I've missed, but let's face it: the idea is absurd. I've lived in the States my whole life more or less, and they've seen a bunch of films made from Steven King novels, but they want to explain my country to me? Ich don't think so.

And I know many Americans, most of whom have never been to Germany, and they in turn want to explain Germany to me. They think they know all about it because they watched Hogan's Heroes every week in the 60's, so now they're experts. But the world is complex, too complex for such instant evaluations. Still, we need to file our experiences into mental shoe boxes in order to understand them. I've found, in fact, that the less I know about a topic, the more confident my opinion about it can be. Having spent three years living in Germany, I find that my picture of what Germany represents or what it means to be German is more complicated than ever. My cycling trip in the Mosel Valley just added to that complexity with a series of experiences that defy the mental shoe box.

I don't think it's possible or profitable to categorize all of our experiences, but it seems to be a universally human trait. The fact is that every country is filled with contradictions and Germany is no exception. The stereotype is, all Germans drink beer and lots of it. The reality is revealed in the view from my guesthouse window in Lösnich. Everyone in the Moseltal makes and drinks wine. Beer is an also ran.

I learned in fourth grade that Germany was the land of the barbarians. Home to the germanic tribes that sacked Rome. The reality is, Trier was the largest Roman city north of the Alps. The Moseltal is filled with the ruins and artifacts of hundreds of years of Roman culture. They planted the grapes, built the terraces and watched the show at the Trier amphitheater. The city gate is still standing and in good shape.

And aren't Germans supposed to be a little wild? Pierced tongues, shaved heads, tattooed eyelids, Rastafarian armpit hair... Yes, it's all relatively common at, for example, a Gymnasium in Berlin-Friedrichshain, and that's before the students show up. But this Konditorei, where I breakfasted in Trier, was preserved like a museum for the Spiessers of the 1960's, and the women who work there have never pierced anything more dramatic than a Schokowalnußkuchen, and then only to see if it were time to take it out of the oven.

It seems to me, that as soon as I learn enough to define a stereotype, I find a dozen exceptions that make me re-think my original thesis. Probably I'm better off not trying to draw any conclusions, but then I come back to a fundamental truth: Germany is distinctly different when compared with, say, Poland. And France is distinct from Spain. There are differences, but they're complicated and not easily grasped. For me it all became clear with a beautiful Jungendstil gate I saw in Traben-Trarbach, just before boarding a train back to Essen.

Clearly influenced by Art Nouveau, this arched gate on the bridge between the town's two halves is distinctly German in the way color is used, in it's proportions and in the romantic reference to the castle seen in the turrets on either side of the arch. But what really struck me was the small traffic sign down at street level. Yes, you may be driving through the vineyards of the Mosel, visiting one of the most charming tourist cities in all of Rheinland-Pfalz, but what's really important is that you know the proper speed limit in case you need to cross the bridge in your tank. It's the kind of detail that's just not left to chance in Germany.

1 comment:

scott davidson said...

What an interesting blog, introduced by a thought-provoking photo. The unusual wall painting of the dwellings is also a strangely modern interpretation. Something like this hieroglyphic view of a park by Swiss painter Paul Klee,
The image can be seen at who can supply you with a canvas print of it.